Why We Can’t Name a Planet After Joe Biden — Yet

Astronomers have discovered a new dwarf planet. For now, they’re calling it “Biden.”

National Journal
March 26, 2014, 2:11 p.m.

As­tro­nomers have dis­covered a pos­sible new dwarf plan­et: a cold, re­l­at­ively tiny lump of ice trav­el­ing near the bar­ri­er where the sun loses all its grav­it­a­tion­al in­flu­ence.

The plan­et — 280 miles in dia­met­er — is roughly the size of Wis­con­sin. And des­pite the plan­et’s re­l­at­ive small­ness, this dis­cov­ery has ig­nited as­tro­nomers’ ex­cite­ment: Its ex­ist­ence and or­bit may be able to tell us about the ori­gins of the sol­ar sys­tem.

But nev­er mind all that. More im­port­antly, the sci­ent­ists gave the plan­et a nick­name, and that name is “Biden.”

“The new­found ob­ject’s of­fi­cial name is 2012 VP113, but the dis­cov­ery team calls it VP for short, or just ‘Biden,’ ” the journ­al Nature, which pub­lished the find­ings, re­ports.

Then this happened (click the photo):

It will be some time be­fore the dwarf plan­et gets an of­fi­cial name. The In­ter­na­tion­al As­tro­nom­ic­al Uni­on needs iron-clad evid­ence that the ce­les­ti­al body does in fact ex­ist and ad­heres to the defin­i­tion of a dwarf plan­et.

But when it comes down to de­cid­ing, the plan­et’s name will not be Biden.

It won’t be for any fault in the vice pres­id­ent. Rather, ac­cord­ing to the IAU, “names for per­sons or events known primar­ily for their mil­it­ary or polit­ic­al activ­it­ies are ac­cept­able only after 100 years elapsed since the per­son died or the event oc­curred.”

So there will be no Dwarf Plan­et Biden, Bush, Clin­ton, or Obama un­til the next cen­tury.

The IAU’s oth­er plan­et-nam­ing rules are won­der­fully nerdy, and worth read­ing through. Those who find the plan­et are al­lowed to sug­gest a name, but the names are of­fi­cially se­lec­ted by a 15-judge com­mit­tee.

Gen­er­ally, the heav­ens em­ploy a Ro­man theme. But in some cir­cum­stances, the rules are highly spe­cif­ic. For ex­ample (em­phas­is mine):

“¢ “Ob­jects in or­bits between the or­bits of Jupiter and Nep­tune, and not in 1:1 res­on­ance with any ma­jor plan­et, are to re­ceive names of cen­taurs.”

“¢ “Ob­jects in or­bits in 3:2 res­on­ance with Nep­tune are to re­ceive names of un­der­world deit­ies.”

“¢ “Names of pet an­im­als are dis­cour­aged.”

“¢ “Names of a purely or prin­cip­ally com­mer­cial nature are not al­lowed.”

So no plan­et Ve­r­i­zon, either. 

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